On the main streets of your town, if you are a child of the American Dream, you won’t see stores… you’ll see opportunity. None of those opportunities require a high school degree. Not having graduated high school isn’t the end of the world. It just makes the rest of your life meaningfully harder, and friction happens in ways most people don’t expect.
Consider the case of Pillow Stuffers, Inc., the finest hair and nail salon in Small Town, USA. There are basically three roles at this salon:
Owner (who also likely operates – that is, she cuts and styles hair as well as all the additional tasks she has to do as an owner like paying the rent, insurance, and marketing the facilities so that lots of customers keep coming);
Operator – this is just a hair cutter gal who may or may not have graduated high school but it is highly likely that she did graduate from Shayla’s Hair Styling School, where she put in about 300 hours of course study to learn all about sterilization and sanitation, the proper procedure for hair and scalp treatment, etc. and then had to pass a state cosmetology exam;
Cleaner-upper – this is the poor shlep who has to mop up hair from the floor, wipe goop out of the sink holes, and perform 18 other awful daily duties. The job, while an essential one, is so low on the totem pole it doesn’t even get a fancier name than “cleaner-upper.” This individual usually hopes to one day go to Shayla’s Hair Styling School, and working around the salon for minimum wage will theoretically help her understand how to play the salon game once she graduates.
As you might guess, a salon hairdresser can make really nice money if she keeps herself busy – i.e. a filled schedule with lots of clients.
Here's some easy high school math: Let’s say a cut and style is $40 in a nice salon and takes 30 minutes. So… using advanced Shmoop calculus, we can derive that in an 8-hour day (it’s really 9 hours but we’re taking off an hour at noon for lunch), Sally Scissors can cut 16 heads. Don’t panic – that’s just hair cutting lingo for heads of hair. Everyone’s skulls are just fine. So that’s 16 heads at $40 each, or $640 total. If she’s good, Sally probably also gets tips – maybe on top of that $640, there’s another $100 in thank you money. The tips she keeps entirely herself and, of the $640, she likely has to give a third or so back to the shop owner to “rent” her seat. So $200 goes to the shop owner (it might seem like an amazing deal for the owner but the owner had to buy the seat itself, rent the building, upgrade it with hazy mirrors so her clientele looked younger/less wrinkly, pay for the cleaner-upper, the electric and water bill, insurance and so on).
Sally keeps $440 from hair fees plus $100 in tips, or $540 for a day’s work. Yeah, it’s a long day and it’s likely she doesn't have such an enormously full schedule every single day. But if she worked anything close to this schedule 5 days a week, that's over $2,500 a week in revenue and well over $100,000 a year. Not bad for someone who didn’t graduate high school – that’s more than pediatricians and a few other low-paid forms of doctors make. And they were the “smartest” ones in their classes, went to college, med school, and beyond. So who’s really “smart” here?
Now consider the numbers for the owner. Let’s say Bonnie Bosspants runs a shop with 10 seats and she takes one of the seats herself. Each seat generates $600 a day in revenues (they are open from 6 am until 8 pm so there are maybe 20 different stylists who rent seats from her). So 10 seats times $600 is $6,000 a day in revenues and the store is open 6 days a week. That’s $36,000 in revenues per week in total to the store. She keeps a third of everyone else’s revenues as “rent” – that’s roughly $12,000.
But Bonnie likely does a little better than this because she cuts hair herself (and often the owner gets to charge a bit more to clients), and doesn’t have to give up a third of her revenues to anyone because she is the owner. She probably also sells gloop in plastic bottles for $20 each (it’s called high margin shampoo and conditioner).
So our estimates of her financial rewards for Pillow Stuffers Salon are probably low. But let’s use the $12,000 a week as the base case. She has to stay open 52 weeks a year because, well… her ladies must have their hair done each week or they’ll go to another salon. (She does also have some male clients, but their hair needs are rarely so demanding.) So a casualty to her life is that she really can’t take much in the way of vacation. Maybe she has a trusted salon person who can manage the store for a week if she’s gone, but that’s very risky because clients want The Man (or Wom) to be there all the time. Once you’ve found someone who can effectively “pump up your volume,” you don’t want to take your chances with anyone else.
So 52 weeks times $12,000 is $624,000 in revenues per year. That’s incredibly nice, but hold for the costs. The rent is $8,000 a month. Those hair dryer things chew up a ton of power so the electric bills are high - $2,500 a month. Shampoos on the lounge chair bowls suck down a ton of water as well - $2,500 a month. There’s insurance: $4,000 a month. And things break and have to be fixed: $3,000 a month. And you have to refill the mint bowl on the front counter: $13 a month. We can probably disregard this one.
If you add everything together, you get expenses of maybe $20,000 a month, or $240,000 a year. So Bonnie, who had a hard time even getting a small business loan to start her shop because she hadn’t graduated high school is now making $624,000 - $240,000 = $384,000 or so per year. Awesome. That’s like serious professional career money, and as long as hair keeps growing and her clients continue to love her, the business should thrive. Maybe she opens a chain of a dozen or so more shops and really shoots for the moon.
All with no high school. Not bad. Welcome to America.
There are plenty of valuable, hard-working people out there who never went to college. Having a blue collar job is nothing to be ashamed of. So what is our point in telling you this stuff - college is for suckers? Hardly. We happen to think that you come out of college a much improved human being in a variety of ways, so we hope you’ll think long and hard before you decide to take a pass. It’s not just the classes and the academic knowledge you take away - the entire college experience is a unique and a formative one. Remember - there are no frats out there in the real world. Unless you count Elks lodges.
The salon owner example is possible, as is just about anything in this great country of ours, but possible and likely are two vastly different things. On average, according to the U.S. Government surveys, here’s how much you can expect to earn over the course of your working life:
High school diploma: $1.2 million
Bachelor’s degree: $2.1 million
Master’s degree: $2.5 million
Doctoral degree: $3.4 million
Professional degree: $4.4 million
Woo hoo! No matter what, you’re going to be a millionaire! Right? Again, big difference between making a million dollars over the course of your life and being worth a million dollars at any given moment.
You will likely make nearly twice as much with a bachelor’s degree as you can with a high school diploma, more than twice as much with a master’s, and it only goes up steeply from there. So before you decide to follow in Bonnie’s hairsteps, keep in mind that you’re rolling the dice. Your salon could just as easily struggle and ultimately shut down after 6 months. The dream is there, but it may be interrupted by intermittent nightmares. And you really need to get your beauty sleep.